Tuesday, August 31, 2010
About Things Standing and Not Standing
It seems that the 150-year-old chestnut tree that once offered solace and hope to Anne Frank while she was in hiding from the Nazis, was recently toppled by wind and heavy rain. The fungus-ridden trunk was badly diseased and snapped 3 feet above the ground. Fortunately no one was injured when the tree fell, but the symbolism of the stricken tree did not escape me. I began to think about things standing and not standing.
Last winter, in the town where I live, the roof of the local high school gymnasium collapsed from the weight of a heavy snowfall. Luckily, it too hurt no one when it fell, but the accident did lead to the entire building being condemned. By some politically unfortunate algorithm, the displaced high schoolers have, this fall, been directed to occupy the site of the middle school building--thereby displacing, in a kind of domino effect, the middle schoolers--who are now having to commute to an old and abandoned campus in the next town. The main building there dates from 1905, and is considered to be haunted.
I learned this from my friend Jane Vance, who is a special aids teacher for the middle school, and is quite put out of joint about having to add half an hour (each way) to her daily commute. Meanwhile, intrigued by the weird history of the place, Jane did some research via Google. The story which she discovered involves two "Black Sisters," so-called because they always wore black, who ran a boarding school in the main building and had an infamous reputation as murderers. "Two people died in the building," she wrote me, "and a third--a child--was drowned in a well out back, which is now covered over. The deaths were all violent, and...Google will regale you with scary stories about the Sisters and the flickering lights, whispers, and weird shadows in the old main building."
In a subsequent conversation with the current building inspector, who has been inspecting the old place for thirty years, Jane learned that the Black Sisters still play their tricks with brooms. Janitors leave the brooms leaning against the wall, but when they come back, one broom is always standing, unsupported, in the middle of the room. Somewhat skeptical, Jane decided to check out the downstairs boiler room on her own, and sure enough, she found a broom standing by itself in the middle of the room. She took the photo above, and sent it to me from her iPhone. "'Haunted seems a good word for the boiler room," she wrote, "not because a broom stands there, but because the place FEELS humid with the residue of the past...or the wrong mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen. You'll absolutely notice the strange feeling when you are down there."
"In south Asia," she adds, "there is a word--geomantic--which means that some places are charged, as if ionically, with the residue of long years of what people's intentions there have been. So some shrines are believed to be potent--able to make you more serene, for example, by virtue of mere proximity to them, because of the effects of so many people who have been there before you, refining their intentions, trying to be good, in that space."
Which leads me, in a rather neat segue, to the symbology of Glenn Beck, standing geomantically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, in the very place where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Crowning himself with the good vibes of all the people who have been there before him (including Barack Obama), Beck implored the gathered crowds to "turn back to God" and return America to the values on which it was founded.
"We are so honored to stand here today," declared his distinguished guest speaker, Sarah Palin, the self-appointed leader of the Mama Grizzlies. "We feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," she said--as spooky in her way as Jane's stand-alone broom.
It is claimed that in ancient times, certain trees were oracular. They could speak and deliver messages. I can't help wondering if the toppling of Anne Frank's beloved tree does not contain an oracular message for our times--signaling that a whole way of life is no longer standing, along with its heady promise of better tomorrows. Arianna Huffington wrote a blog about Beck's rally, in which she said: "What were thought by many to be the ingredients of the good life just a short time ago--a job, a home, a secure retirement, a college education for your kids, and prospects for a brighter future for them--are no longer attainable simply by hard work and playing by the rules. And it doesn't appear that this will change any time soon."
It seems like we will all need to collectively redefine what we mean by the good life in going forward. These are indeed heady days. Can we learn to navigate without the pole stars--and the bourgeois goal--of better times ahead which we have for so long set for ourselves?